As police struggle to carry out their duties in the face of budget cuts, British road traffic law is making their job harder still.
Over 10,000 drivers continue to drive legally despite having accrued more than 12 penalty points. Every day, careless and dangerous drivers are stopped by the police and prosecuted by the CPS, but then treated so leniently by magistrates that they continue to offend – thereby causing further work for the police, not to mention a continuing peril to other road users. Drivers with 12 penalty points are ordinarily required by law to be disqualified for at least six months or more by the courts.
Take, for example, the recent case of Gavin Hetherington, a salesman with 10 penalty points on his driving licence who was caught by police travelling at 50 mph while spending up to five seconds at a time looking down at his mobile phone. Magistrates cleared him of driving carelessly in spite of the fact he was travelling up to 111 metres at a time without looking at the road in front of him.
10,000 motorists with 12 points (or more) continue to drive legally
Hetherington argued successfully that a driving ban would cause him exceptional hardship. He was awarded a further 6 penalty points to bring his current total to 16 and as a result joins the group of 10,000 drivers around Britain who are legally permitted to drive with 12 or more points on their licence. One driver, has racked up a total of 62 penalty points on his licence for speeding, but continues to escape a ban.
Sentences of disqualification from driving have collapsed by 62% in ten years, exceeding the drop in serious motoring offences recorded over the same period. Increasing numbers of people are being allowed to continue driving when they reach 12 points.
The frailty of British road traffic law applied without fear or favour
If you are under the misapprehension that mobile phone use by drivers is a minor offence and that police should be concentrating on more serious matters, rest assured that even drivers who kill are permitted to remain on the roads. For example, Christopher Gard was texting at the wheel when he killed cyclist Lee Martin. Gard had six previous convictions for mobile phone use at the wheel, and was allowed to continue driving by the magistrates court after pleading exceptional hardship. And it seems the frailty of British road traffic law is applied without fear or favour. You can run down and kill a peer of the realm as they use a zebra crossing, plead guilty to driving without due care and yet still escape with little more than a short ban.
Lord Taylor of Blackburn was on a zebra crossing outside the House of Lords when the driver of lorry struck and killed him.
Sentencing the driver at the Old Bailey this month, Judge Anuja Dhir QC said: “The size of the vehicle you were driving and the weather conditions on that day should have meant that you were even more careful than you would normally be. You were not.” And yet the penalty handed down amounted to little more than some community service and a driving ban.
Magistrates heard late last year how a driver failed to see the cyclist waiting in the middle of the road to make a turn – only becoming aware of the cyclist’s presence when he was sent flying over the windscreen leaving him with injuries requiring four days in intensive care.
District Judge Stephen Nicholls described the incident as a “momentary lapse of concentration” on the part of the driver as he fined him £350 and handed him three penalty points.
The case prompted Ian Austin MP to Tweet that the sentence was a farce. We think it’s even more ridiculous that our members of our Parliament appear impotent to change the legal framework that underpins the culture of our roads. Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for Transport Jesse Norman assures us that the forthcoming review of road traffic law and sentencing will improve conditions for all road users and yet over recent months has seemed curiously preoccupied with the threat posed by cyclists.
Britain is in dire need of a complete overhaul of road traffic law and sentencing – not least because at present it is a waste of police time. The driver mentioned in the case above was handed three points, which highlights the inconsistency of the system. Three points is at the lower end of the tariff for the offence of causing death by dangerous driving and yet driving without insurance carries a minimum penalty of six points.
The single most meaningful thing we could do to improve the roads here in Britain for everyone – irrespective of the way they travel – is to introduce the systematic approach to road danger reduction seen in the Netherlands and Sweden. It’s a policy that seeks to eliminate completely deaths on the road, which is why it is sometimes referred to as Vision Zero. We are already many decades behind our European cousins. Rather than describe our road traffic law as a farce, our MPs must take action now.
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